A Virtual Time-Lapse Recreation of the Building of Notre Dame (1160)

Hun­dreds of goth­ic cathe­drals dot­ted all over Europe have faced dec­i­ma­tion and destruc­tion, whether through sack­ings, rev­o­lu­tions, nat­ur­al decay, or bomb­ing raids. But since World War II, at least, the most extra­or­di­nary exam­ples that remain have seen restora­tion and con­stant upkeep, and none of them is as well-known and as cul­tur­al­ly and archi­tec­tural­ly sig­nif­i­cant as Paris’s Notre Dame. One can­not imag­ine the city with­out it, which made the scenes of Parisians watch­ing the cathe­dral burn yes­ter­day as poignant as the scenes of the fire itself.

The flames claimed the rib-vault­ed roof and the “spine-tin­gling, soul-lift­ing spire,” writes The Wash­ing­ton Post, who quote cathe­dral spoke­man Andre Finot’s assess­ment of the dam­age as “colos­sal.” The exte­ri­or stone tow­ers, famed stained-glass win­dows, and icon­ic arch­es and fly­ing but­tress­es with­stood the dis­as­ter, but the wood­en inte­ri­or, “a mar­vel,” writes the Post, “that has inspired awe and won­der for the mil­lions who have vis­it­ed over the centuries—has been gut­ted.” Noth­ing of the frame, says Finot, “will remain.”

The sad irony is that the fire report­ed­ly result­ed from an acci­dent dur­ing the medieval church’s ren­o­va­tion, one of many such projects that have pre­served this almost 900-year-old archi­tec­ture. The French gov­ern­ment has vowed to rebuild. Will it mat­ter to pos­ter­i­ty that a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the Cathe­dral dates from hun­dreds of years after its orig­i­nal con­struc­tion? Will Notre Dame lose its ancient aura, and what does this mean for Parisians and the world?

It’s too soon to answer ques­tions like these and too soon to ask them. Now is a time to reck­on with cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal loss, and to appre­ci­ate the impor­tance of what was saved. At the top of the post, you can watch a vir­tu­al time-lapse recre­ation of the con­struc­tion of Notre Dame, begun in 1160 and most­ly com­plet­ed one hun­dred years lat­er, though build­ing con­tin­ued into the 14th century—a jaw-drop­ping time scale in an era when tow­er­ing new build­ings go up in a mat­ter of weeks.

After tak­ing more than the human lifes­pan to com­plete, until yes­ter­day the cathe­dral stood the test of time, as the brief France in Focus tour of its eight cen­turies of art and archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry above explains. “The most vis­it­ed mon­u­ment in the French Cap­i­tal” may be a rel­ic of a very dif­fer­ent, pre-mod­ern, pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary, France. But its impos­ing cen­tral set­ting in the city, and in mod­ern works from Vic­tor Hugo’s Hunch­back of Notre Dame to Walt Disney’s Hunch­back of Notre Dame—not to men­tion the tourists, reli­gious pil­grims, schol­ars, and art stu­dents who pour into Paris to see it—mark Notre Dame as a very con­tem­po­rary land­mark. Learn more about how it became so above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Notre Dame Cap­tured in an Ear­ly Pho­to­graph, 1838

The His­to­ry of West­ern Archi­tec­ture: From Ancient Greece to Roco­co (A Free Online Course)

Wikipedia Leads Effort to Cre­ate a Dig­i­tal Archive of 20 Mil­lion Arti­facts Lost in the Brazil­ian Muse­um Fire

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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